"To watch him turn around and have the seasons he's had?" Victorino said on Sunday as he recalled the conversation. "It's great."
Tonight, Victorino and the rest of the Phillies will square off against Werth for the first time since Werth signed a 7-year, $126 million contract with the Nationals in December. Seeing their former rightfielder wearing a different uniform will be a strange sight.
Other players have moved on from the 2008 World Series team: Pat Burrell, Pedro Feliz, Brett Myers. But none of them defines this current era of Phillies baseball quite like Werth did. With the star-studded rotation and the NL-leading payroll the team currently boasts, it is easy to forget that the Phillies' only World Series victory in the last 30 years came on the backs of a motley crew of players who came into their own at the right time: Cole Hamels, who at 24 years old went 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA in five playoff starts while winning MVP honors in the NLCS and World Series; Victorino, who hit .293 with 14 home runs in his first season as an everday centerfielder; and, of course, Werth, who worked his way into an everyday job late in the 2008 season and went 8-for-18 with three RBI and four runs in the World Series.
"Is it going to be weird? Absolutely, playing with him all this time," Victorino said. "But that's baseball. Everybody knows it. We went through it with other guys: Burrell, [Aaron] Rowand. They were integral parts of championships and winning seasons here. J-Dub's going to be one of those guys. We've got to look at him and laugh at it a little bit and then when the game starts, forget all about it. He's the opposing team. But ultimately, deep down inside, there's friendship there. Ultimately, it's going to be different, funny."
When Charlie Manuel talked to Werth shortly after he signed with the Nationals, the Phillies' manager asked his newly departed rightfielder to send him some money. He was joking, but you can see how Manuel might have expected a commission. Three years earlier, in February 2008, he had told reporters that he envisioned Werth as a player with 30-home-run potential. At the time, Werth was coming off a season in which he hit .298 with eight home runs in 304 plate appearances. The Phillies had signed veteran Geoff Jenkins to play rightfield, enabling Victorino to move to center to replace Rowand, who had signed a 5-year, $60 million contract with the Giants. Werth entered the season as the team's fourth outfielder, likely to get the majority of his at-bats against lefthanded pitchers.
"He's a tool player," Manuel said. "He's five tools. He's got power to all fields, hits the ball for average, a high on-base percentage, good arm, good speed, good defensive. The talent's there."
In 2009 and '10, Werth essentially played his way out of Philadelphia, hitting .282 with an .899 OPS and 63 home runs and setting himself up for a monster deal. The Phillies publicly expressed hope about re-signing him, but midway through last season it was clear the two sides would not match up financially. So Werth headed to the Nationals, and the Phillies entered spring training with top prospect Domonic Brown and reserve Ben Francisco competing for the starting job.
Baseball is a sport of change, from the seasons it encompasses to the rosters it produces. A certain amount of self-reliance is required to make it in the sport. By the time Werth established himself as a front-line player, he was 30 years old and playing for his fourth organization. Now, the man tabbed to replace him hopes to follow a similar career arc.
Francisco, 29, won the Opening Day job after a strong spring, although it didn't hurt that his top competition spent most of the spring on the disabled list while recovering from a broken bone in his right hand. Through 11 games, Francisco has made the Phillies feel a lot more comfortable about Brown's injury, hitting .306 with a .903 OPS and two home runs in 40 plate appearances.
Francisco's most extensive experience as an everyday player came in 2008, when he hit .266 with 15 home runs in 447 at-bats for the Indians. He began the following season as a regular, but moved to a bench role when the Phillies acquired him and Cliff Lee for a package of prospects in July. Now, he is back in the lineup on a regular basis.
"You're able to make adjustments," Francisco said. "Getting four at-bats in a game, you kind of get a feel for where your swing is, compared to one at-bat, where you don't know if you are locked in or not."
Whether Francisco can make the Phillies forget about the man he replaced remains to be seen. Werth enters tonight's game hitting .200 with a .705 OPS and one home run in 42 plate appearances.
He and Manuel have talked a couple of times since his departure. In fact, Werth sent his former manager a set of beer mugs for Christmas.
"I liked him, man," Manuel said. "I talked to him every day. He did a hell of a job for us. He was part of our success. He got a lot of money and I wish him all of the luck in the world."
For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read David Murphy's blog, High Cheese, at www.philly.com/HighCheese.
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